Rated PG-13, with a content warning for rituals for the dead, including children.
by Robert Luke Wilkins
The plains town still smouldered, its once-strong gates blackened and ruined, but the bandits were long gone. The townsfolk were gathering the bodies of the dead into a great heap, and though he had caught the smell on the air hours earlier, Moran still arrived in time to see them working.
It was easier if he arrived when they were finished.
One of the men threw an infant girl’s body onto the heap, and Moran turned away as he fought down old memories—it was neither the time nor the place. Today was about their grief.
He walked up to the gates, and waited to be invited in. The townsfolk who noticed him at first threw him strange looks, which came as no surprise. He was a tall man, with a warrior’s build—if he were carrying a sword, he could easily have been mistaken for a bandit himself.
But the muscle was as much a tool of his trade as any he carried, and the robes he wore were unmistakable. Unchanged in more than a century, their gray-trimmed white contrasted with his sun-darkened skin—but the silver that had crept into his brown hair matched them well enough. And beneath it, always hidden, he wore a necklace—a single length of thick black cord that held twenty-seven forged steel pendants.
His heavy pack held all he needed to practice his art. His shovel and long-handled sledgehammer were tied together across the top beneath a rolled blanket, and the mighty bronze hammer’s head leaned the entire pack a little sideways. A broad brass pestle and two copper pots were tied beneath with rough brown cord, and they clattered as he walked.
It never took people long to realize who he was—and today was no exception. The whispers grew, crept from mouth to ear, and soon enough the Town Elder came out to meet him.